close-up of the eye of a donkey

I recently met, through a dating app, a man with an interesting philosophy about text messaging. In his view—if I may presume to attempt to state it correctly here—texting should be purely transactional. The purpose of texts is to set up a time and place to meet in person. To try to convey emotion or wit through a text is to set yourself up to be misinterpreted on the other end. It also puts you at risk of descending into kitschy sentimentality, as genuine emotions are best expressed in person.

I agree that kitschy sentimentality is something to be avoided (while acknowledging that beauty is in the eye of the beholder). And, as you know, I concur that language is a blunt instrument. Indeed, texting is one of the bluntest language tools ever invented, since it demands a severe economy of words, while still promising real human connection. It’s hard work to convey what you want to convey through a text. And there is, I agree, a risk that you will be misunderstood, which would necessitate even more time spent crafting even more refined text messages to correct the misperception.

Is it worth it? Which path is wiser—to use texting for transactional purposes only, or to also attempt to convey emotion and wit through this blunt tool?

Let’s ask our friend and guru Hafiz, why don’t we? Surely he can offer us some good advice on how to text a girl, woman, boy, man, or other divine spirit.

What—you don’t think a 14th-century poet can have anything relevant to say about text messaging? I say he just might. Here’s Daniel Ladinsky’s translation of the first two stanzas of the poem “Why Just Ask the Donkey,” from the book The Gift:

Just ask the donkey in me
To speak to the donkey in you,
When I have so many other beautiful animals
And brilliant colored birds inside
That are all longing to say something wonderful
And exciting to your heart?

Yes! I am with you, Hafiz! I, too, have so many lovely animals and colorful birds inside of me, longing to speak out! Why, indeed, just speak the donkey-like transactional language of setting a time and place to meet?

In this poem, of course, Hafiz refers not to texting but to speaking in person. In other words, although people met in person in the 14th century more often than they texted (understatement alert!), they still, according to Hafiz, at least sometimes failed to express emotion and wit. Maybe people talked about how much merchandise they sold that day or week. Maybe they talked about their home improvement projects. Who knows what they talked about back then? But it’s clear from this poem that Hafiz thinks people often held back.

People do often hold back. I don’t think this has anything to do with technology. People hold back in person, they hold back while talking on the phone, and they hold back while texting. Sometimes people use digital technology as a means of holding back, as a screen to hide their true selves. But no matter what medium they use to convey information, they do hold back.

I, myself, wanted to hold back in writing about Hafiz. If you don’t mind me quoting myself, here’s why I felt this way: “It’s one thing to enjoy your personal reactions to what you encounter in life. It’s another to muck it all up by trying to communicate something uncommunicable.” In other words, I was afraid I would not succeed in communicating what I wanted to communicate.

This sounds suspiciously similar to my date’s reasons for not attempting to convey emotion or wit by text. He doesn’t want to be misinterpreted; and he doesn’t want to come across as sentimental (read: misinterpreted as fake). In other words, he’s afraid he will not succeed in communicating what he wants to communicate.

If I have not learned, from three years of therapy, that fear is the #1 enemy of self-actualization, I have learned nothing. When you communicate with another human being—whether in person or through technology—you inherently risk being misunderstood.

But no risk, no reward! And the more you work at communication, the better you get at it. Traveling by car, bus, train, and plane is risky; but we do it because we want to get places and have experiences. Similarly, using language, orally or in writing, to express emotion or wit is risky; but it’s one of the best ways to experience real human connection on those levels.

I’m not advocating replacing in-person meetings with texting. What I’m saying is, sometimes I am here, while you, dear date, are way over someplace else. Sometimes I have a miraculously amazing animal inside of me, who’s jumping up and down and snorting while thinking of you. And sometimes (okay, pretty much all the time), I have this amazing piece of technology within arm’s reach, whereby that incredible animal can totally leap up and slobber all over you! That is, if I don’t force it down through domination and fear tactics.

Yes, there’s a risk here. You might not want to be slobbered all over. Or maybe you’re not fond of that particular kind of slobber. And you might misinterpret the slobber as green slime. But there’s also a chance that you’ll love it and reciprocate with your own weird animal fun!

And that would be—IMHO—divine.

What are all your colorful birds longing to say today?

yellow, white, blue, and green parrots behind a cage wall - so many bright colorful birds - which represents another way to text a girl, woman, boy, man, or other divine spirit